"A Vegetarian Shrine in Another Place and Time."
That is how the Korean restaurant, Hangawi, located two blocks from the Empire State Building is referred to on its website. It is clear from the moment you step inside Hangawi that every effort has been made to create an atmosphere that transports guests from the bustle of lower Fifth Avenue to what one imagines might be a tranquil inn of old Seoul. Shoes are removed before entering the dining area, and meals can be eaten either sitting in the traditional Asian style on pillows provided, or Western style. Subtle lighting and examples of Korean crafts and art at each seating area further enhance the atmosphere.
The menu is strictly vegetarian, and most of the dishes appear to be vegan as well. For gluten-free dining, it is suggested you discuss your dietary restrictions with the waitstaff, which, given their attentiveness to detail, is a comforting experience for those who must take their gluten-free diet seriously. Dishes which are gluten-free are pointed out, and those which can be adjusted to be gluten-free are suggested, as well. The kitchen stocks wheat-free soy sauce, which easily changes a gluten-containing dish to a gluten-free one.
If you are a gluten-free diner who studiously avoids ordering a salad to avoid severe pangs of jealousy while your companion is devouring something battered and fried as an appetizer, have no fear of the Hangawi house salad, since its complexity and novel ingredients will prevent any appearance of the jade monster. In addition to delicate greens, the salad contains dried persimmon, cucumber, shredded pear, and crispy taro in a carrot ginger dressing. Hardly your standard steakhouse fare.
Wine, beer and sake are served, and some interesting non-alcoholic drinks: the ginger iced tea is very strong and refreshing. The corn and spinach chowder is creamy, sweet and a beautiful bright green. Kabocha squash in a stone bowl of fried rice is a good choice for a gluten-free vegetarian. Just be sure to ask for the rice to be fried in wheat-free soy sauce and the squash to be steamed, not battered and fried. Even with those adjustments the dish was attractive, tasty and filling.
One word of advice: the restaurant can be noisy when filled with a raucous Saturday night crowd. Try to visit on the more peaceful weekdays, when you can easily savor the many elegant details, culinary and otherwise, for which Hangawi is known.